With all due respect to dogs, it probably is more accurately a bird-eat-bird world.
Sadly to Disney-inspired sentimentalists, some species of wildlife are not “nice.” Birds are included in these distorted value assignments among predators that kill to feed themselves and their young. Some birds kill and eat other birds.
Not only is it a natural system, this predator-prey relationship is necessary. But often we fail to embrace this when it plays out at our backyard bird feeder.
Raptors that feed on other birds, hawks of a few varieties, are probably more plentiful now than they have been in modern times. Formerly killed routinely by humans, hawks nowadays have a combination of federal and state laws protecting them as well as environmental laws that provide healthier habitat.
Hawks, shorebirds and others benefited from the same laws and regulations that helped bring about the dramatic comeback of the bald eagle.
A couple of hawk species specialize in hunting smaller birds. The Cooper’s hawk and the sharp-shinned hawk are medium- to modest-sized raptors that are fast and highly maneuverable. These two are the most likely to imperil songbirds that commonly collect around area feeding stations provided by people.
The sharp-shinned hawk is a small assassin, about 10-14 inches long. Even at that, it has a tail that is long in relation to its body. The wingspan is up to only as much as 22 inches, usually less.
The adults are slate gray-blue on the upper body and extending up the nape of the neck over the top of its head. That little noggin, by the way, is a bit small in relation to its body.
The adult sharp-shin has rusty, reddish bars overlaid on white across its breast. This is confused by the juveniles, which are mostly brown on the upper body and lack the rusty red, instead having dark brown streaks against white on the undersides.
The Cooper’s hawk is easily confused with the sharp-shin, but it tends to be larger. The Cooper’s hawk ranges 14-20 inches long, and the largest can have a wingspan to 35 inches.
An issue here is that females of both species are larger than the boy hawks. Consequently, the largest (female) sharp-shinned hawks can be about the same size as the smallest (male) Cooper’s hawks.
The adult Cooper’s is dark blue-gray above with reddish bars on the breast. The juveniles are confusing here, too, most being largely brown above with dark brown streaks over white or cream underbody.
Cooper’s hawks and sharp-shinned hawks are related, coming from the same genus, Accipiter. Lacking obvious size clues, it is difficult even for experts to tell one from another. Working from sketchy views, it is nearly impossible.
Here are a few fine points that could help:
If the feathers on the back of an Accipiter’s head form a low crest, that’s a Cooper’s hawk. If the bird has a rounded head and the dark color of it runs down the neck to resemble a hood, that is a sharp-shin.
If you should get a good look at the Accipiter’s tail tip and the feathers appear rounded, that suggests it is a Cooper’s hawk. If the tailfeather are squared off on the ends, that is indicative of a sharp-shinned hawk.
A Cooper’s hawk head is large compared to its body, and its body is somewhat tubular shaped. A sharp-shin, by contrast, has a small head relative to its body, while its body shape is markedly thicker in the upper, shoulder area and more quickly tapering toward its butt end.
Both species are naturally woodland hunters where they are adept at picking off smaller birds from perches or catching them on the wing. With the clearing of the original eastern forest and the conversion to much of the land to patchy woodlots mixed with suburbs and other human housing, the Accipiters adjusted.
Ornithologists identify an adaptation of sharp-shinned and Cooper’s hawks to the backyards of America for a food source. It is said that about 40% of households nowadays maintain bird feeders. These congregate songbirds in specific places, and these small and mid-size hawks find them little bits of prey paradise.
What sharp-shins and Cooper’s do around backyard feeders is the same thing that they do naturally in the woods. The main difference is that people who put seeds in the feeders might see it happen — or find leftover piles of songbird feathers that are the result.
It may be disturbing to the hosts of songbirds, but it is nature’s plan at work. Some birds kill; others get killed. It is meant to be, and the species populations balance out that way.
If that happens at your feeder and you want to try to preserve all your cardinals, titmice, chickadees, etc., experts recommend taking down the feeder. Eliminate the hawk’s buffet, the concentration point for the songbirds, for a week or so.
With his prey magnet gone, the hawk soon will move on. When you restore the feeder, the songbirds will find it again and be back in business right away.
If the hawk returns or another appears, repeat the process with a longer break.
Don’t get punitive. All raptor species are protected. Penalties for shooting even a songbird-snatching hawk can be severe. The hawk is entitled to kill your wild finches; you are not entitled to kill the hawk.
Better yet, wish them all well. Enjoy the show.
Steve Vantreese, a freelance outdoors writer, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.